For newcomers to home coffee - some thoughts on starting out

Discovering Real Coffee (by Paul L)

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Where do we begin?

On our forum ( www. ) a new joiner posted a question we often see on coffee forums. It was along the lines of: I have low coffee consumption, perhaps one coffee a day, no-one else in the household really drinks it, should I get a pod machine? should I stick with a cafetiere? etc.

It is easy to forget as time goes by that we all have similar questions when we start out. To use analogies try describing the sound of a guitar or piano to someone who has not heard them or blue to someone who has not yet seen colour. You can't describe taste really either. So, I have lifted and adapted my reply to that particular thread as I thought it might make a thoughtful summary if you have just started considering home coffee.

How good are the ready made drinks we buy from cafe's, airports and stores?

I have yet to try a pod, buy pre-ground coffee or a high street beverage from the big brand coffee shops which come close to the standards we can achieve by making coffee with our own grinder, portafilter-based machine and access to fresh coffee. I'll go a step further, 99% of coffee shops and 99% of coffee beans you can buy will also have the same disappointment compared to what we can achieve at home. This really is not apparent when we start out. It is only over time or by visiting coffee enthusiasts that we learn and then wonder how we were in such ignorance and how such a low standard of coffee consciousness exists in general.

The trouble with it is that comments like the above come across like snobbery to the outside World.

So, our enthusiasm can be easily dismissed as another form of geekery or an awful lot of fuss over small differences and many don't get to taste what we do on a daily basis. I have lost count of the number of people whose attention span quickly leaves them on words of "I like Starbucks or brand x…" and can not envisage there is an alternative of perhaps equal or better quality.

The question then when just starting out is "what is all the fuss about and is it all worth it?" Arguably, the answer is like asking Turkeys to vote for Christmas but I'll try and be a little more objective!

Why does our discovery of good coffee take us so much by surprise?

Perhaps the following is a typical scenario which you may have read or will undoubtedly read as another person becomes 'enlightened'. Let's start then from when our regular diet is the 'jar and spoon', we make an occasional cafetiere. Our treat is a visit to our favourite coffee shop who we assume to be specialists with their own particular signature on this coffee culture invented by the Italians in the 20th Century…

We do not realise that coffee is in fact 2,000 years old and started in Ethiopia, that it travelled to the Middle East, to South America, to the European influenced Pacific Islands, into coffee houses in Europe and the UK (yes, honestly!) and then somehow a whole history was somehow wiped out and replaced with the jar and a spoon. Largely due to the invention of coffee-substitute powder (aka instant) developed for soldiers in World War II so they could taste 'coffee' on their travels. That it has taken over and obliterated coffee consciousness is incredible. You could not write the script if you tried. As a result, our discovery of the inheritance sees us amazed at the abuse of this beverage and it can only really be described as abuse.

Taking our first steps

However, let's step back. We are not yet aware of the above. We decide to try and emulate what we buy in the high street coffee houses but with savings of course as the coffee house is not cheap. We perhaps buy a Gaggia or KitchenAid, a pod device or another brewing method from a department store. We possibly buy a blade grinder or a cheap burr grinder with a few settings. We find information and forums on the web. However, as we explore the coffee world on-line we can't really relate to the seemingly vast expense enthusiasts drop on their roasters, machines and grinders or even the accessories! I mean, it's only a cup of coffee.

However, along the way we learn, we improve and maybe we take a bit of time out and socialise. Without realising at first, our taste buds refine a bit more. we have unwittingly started a process of awareness which can't really be undone and this is worth reading again so you dwell on this as it will happen to you.

The penny drops

We start noticing things when we buy a coffee out. Yes, the expense! Then we start to see the dirty steam wands, the dosers full of ground coffee, the hoppers full of staling beans if they were not already stale from the roasting, packing and distribution which is not necessarily as good as we might assume. We observe the poor tamping techniques, the continuously re-heated milk and the poor and inconsistent milk texture. We start to instantly taste the 'burned' taste of overheated extractions or sour shots of under-heated extractions, the over-roasted or under-roasted defects, the weak gusher shots, and on it goes. We find to our horror that coffee we used to enjoy doesn't quite taste as we remember it.

What have they done? They must have gone downhill, except that this a recurring experience as we try our other reference points again and we realise it's us. Slowly, we stop frequenting these places and we realise we have isolated ourselves.

So what do we do now?

What have we done? At this point, we probably wish we had not started, I mean ignorance was bliss! Except it wasn't really of course. This bothers us, we get on our soapbox, we develop a critical dislike and a snobbery about what is now apparent to us, the abuse of coffee.

Thankfully, we settle down somewhere along the line, we quieten and no longer really say anything to the people we meet a) because it's fruitless and b) because of course it's all a bit geeky. Perhaps we reach the point (as I did some while ago) that you walk into a place and sum it up in a few seconds as you order your tea! But that's okay, you don't say anything, I mean it's only a cup of coffee not a holy elixir so we are happy to drink a tea and wait until we get home. This probably isn't too far from the truth. I don't know why but poor tea seems easier to drink than poor coffee. Of course, if you started to get into tea properly then you struggle with a lot of that too!

It is hard to explain to someone starting out in a way they can relate to, just why pods or stale coffee or some of the pointers described above are underwhelming. It is very clear when experienced though. When you hand a cup of home cappuccino to someone they will most likely have no idea of the skills you acquired, your roasting, grinding, adjusting for extractions on your specialist grinder, brew temperature and brew pressure of your specialist machine, cup pre-warming, skilled milk steaming to achieve that yogurt texture which has taken hours days and weeks to perfect and perhaps the pour as you leave a little art. You do it effortlessly, day after day. Yet they taste it immediately.

Does any of the above ring bells yet?

Can you relate to that statement yet? If this means nothing to you right now then seek out an enthusiast or two as visiting their kitchens will give your taste buds a wake-up call. You will realise instantly the standard of coffee and milk drinks which are available to us with a bit of effort, yes expense, developing knowledge, skill and technique and using a really important ingredient - freshly roasted beans either bought (relatively expensive) or roasted at home (what the greens club on our forum is all about as buying greens is still relatively expensive otherwise).

Clearly, a really good grinder and machine is expensive and a real extravagance for low consumption and somewhat dependent on what type of coffee you wish to make. A good espresso machine and grinder may be overkill for you as you try and keep costs down with no real idea of where you will take your own coffee journey. Alas, coffee has a habit of luring you along once you regularly start to taste differences.

When I started out I did not see a narrative which gave me a scene-set such as the above. It only became apparent through reading and getting to know one or two people and learning properly from them. If you are similar then hopefully this starts your awareness, gives you a glimpse of what is not in the public consciousness. I also hope another message is not list in it all which is that it's not necessary to take it all too seriously. It is like going full circle to an extent.

How good can home coffee get?

If you are intrigued though and you are saying to yourself, okay I'm going with this for a moment but I'm still not clear enough then here's a follow-on question. What is it that sucks enthusiasts in?

There are a few aspects:

  • flavour without a doubt and I mean flavour varieties between beans and really surprising ones. Hints of caramel, of marzipan, of fruits such as lemons or blueberries, hints of liquorice. This all sounding like one of those wine tasting programmes but these flavours are there and more. As your taste buds refine they naturally pick out subtle differences and are ruthless in recognising taste defects, hence the experience described earlier about moving away from previous references.
  • coffee free from bitterness, hard to appreciate until you taste it but so obvious you kick yourself
  • a smoothness in both taste and texture from milk drinks that makes a mockery of the milk drinks handed to us in retail outlets
  • great flavours in an 'Americano', our new (and gourmet version of the) 'jar and spoon' as it were
  • freshness which has to be tasted to realise how stale most coffee is.

Take it in your stride

Don't be intimidated though. Coffee is a personal journey and should just fit in to daily life. The main thing to do is get to taste, appreciate what is out there and then have a sight and taste framework for what you personally would like and be prepared to pursue at home. You can then explore how to go about it without feeling like you are wearing a blind-fold. Which is where the growing articles on the Wiki, the meeting up and the forum come in…